To many people, particularly parents, the spread of ever more violent pornography is a huge concern, though Attwood and Smith [editors of the Porn Studies journal] don’t buy the idea that it is getting more violent, or even that it is a huge concern. Smith puts it in the context of previous “moral panics”. She says: “The idea the boundary is constantly being moved in one direction isn’t necessarily accurate because there’s so much pushing back. There isn’t a clearly discernible movement of more and more stuff becoming more and more permissible.”
To say that this is a contentious position is a massive understatement. And it’s one of the reasons why 880 people have signed an online petition questioning the integrity of the journal and accusing it of bias. They’re calling on Routledge, the respected academic publisher producing the journal, to answer questions about its “intention and focus” and its “editorial board which is uniformly pro-porn”.
Behind the petition are the campaigning group Stop Porn Culture, who refer to themselves as “a group of academics, activists, anti-violence experts, health professionals, and educators”. While they “agree that pornography and porn culture demand and deserve more critical attention” they claim that the journal is operating “under the auspices of neutrality” when it has a pro-porn bias and “further fosters the normalisation of porn”.
I ask Attwood and Smith if they were surprised by the petition. “We knew that there would be some reactions against the journal, because it’s a controversial area,” says Smith. “But there have been far fewer than I expected. I think one of the things that I’ve been really pleased about it is how little antagonism we’ve had from other academics.”
Well, not that little. When I ring Gail Dines, a British professor of sociology at Boston’s Wheelock College and a major figure in porn academia (she is author of Pornland and a co-founder of Stop Porn Culture), she is spitting. Attwood and Smith are “akin to climate change deniers,” she says.
“They’re leaping to all sorts of unfounded conclusions. It’s incredibly important that we study the porn industry, porn culture, porn’s effect on sexual identities. It’s become a major part of our lives. But these editors come from a pro-porn background where they deny the tons and tons of research that has been done into the negative effects of porn.
“They are cheerleaders for the industry. And to offer themselves as these neutral authorities is just laughable. Have a journal but you’ve got to have a plurality of voices on the editorial board and there simply isn’t. There’s a pornographer on it, for God’s sake [Tristan Taormina]. There are so many studies out there that show how porn is getting more and more violent, which show that the more porn boys watch, the more traditionally sexist attitudes they develop towards women.
“And yet these women editing the journal say, ‘Oh the research isn’t there.’ Yes it is! There’s tons of it. They just haven’t read it.”
What’s apparent is just how passionately held the views are on both sides, or as Attwood puts it: “We operate in an area which is really bifurcated.” They defend the make-up of the editorial board. Yes, they do have a “pornographer” on the board of a peer-reviewed journal, but she’s a “very well-known figure in sexuality studies”, says Attwood. She’s a sex educator, has edited a book on feminist pornography as well as making porn films, she adds. Smith says the rest of the board reflects “people we know that we’ve worked with in the past, but it’s not about politics. They’re enthusiastic about the journal and want to get it off the ground. But the editorial board is not fixed. These things change over time.”
Routledge has also defended them in the face of the attacks: “The proposal for Porn Studies was reviewed by six experts in the field, and we have every confidence that the editors and board are equally committed to our values.” What’s more, Attwood and Smith say it’s inaccurate to call them pro-porn. I point out to Smith that she has made pro-porn statements. “There’s a quote for example where you say that you’re ‘politically motivated’ to show that porn can be enjoyed.”
“Porn is important to people on all kinds of levels, but, if you want people to be honest or to tell you things about their engagements with pornography, you have to be prepared to listen,” she says. “I am politically motivated about the fact that people who look at porn are not all lizard people.”
She’s right, of course. The sheer numbers involved mean that of course, it’s not all “lizard people”. And they both say that figuring out why people enjoy porn “and what they are doing and feeling and thinking” is essential.
The problem, says Attwood, is that “so many things have become accepted as true but actually there’s no hard evidence. It’s become accepted that girls now shave off all their pubic hair because they’ve seen porn films, that porn is becoming more violent to women, that everyone under the age of 10 has seen it. There’s very little evidence, solid, robust evidence, but it’s become part of the conventional wisdom that we know these things. We don’t know these things.”
Dines practically blows her top though when I tell her this. “That’s complete crap! Why are young girls taking off all their pubic hair? We know it’s because of porn. Because boys can’t bear it. Women’s mags are telling them every week to be clean down there. I talk to counsellors and anal rape is almost as prevalent as vaginal rape on campuses now. Where is that coming from?
“There is so much evidence about the effect that porn is having. We know that it’s becoming more violent. The definitive piece of research from 2010, which analysed the top 50 sites and DVDs, found that 90% of all content included physical or verbal abuse against women. That’s proper empirical evidence-based research. But that is not what these women do. Their research is not evidence-based.”
It would be easy to write this off as a spat between academics, but Fiona Elvines of Rape Crisis South London, who has been campaigning to amend Section 63 of the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act – which deals with extreme pornography – and to include relationships education on the national curriculum, says that the sort of statements Attwood and Smith make fly in the face of “the lived experience of real women and men on the ground”.
She’s had her own personal experience of the academic porn wars. “I have been at conferences where Feona Attwood and Clarissa Smith have challenged stuff I’ve said. We work with survivors, and we are seeing the harms of pornography every day in our work and they say, ‘It’s not in the research.’ But this is practice-based evidence from frontline services.
“We are having lots of women talking about being raped and being filmed and that being used as a method for silencing them, but that will take a while to make it into the research papers.
“They’re told that, if they go to the police, the footage will be posted online. We see porn being used by child abusers to groom them. My concern is the kind of knowledge we have isn’t seen as valid because the editors have a pro-porn slant and it will silence dissenting voices.”